By John Hanger
During the last 10 years the prices of oil, natural gas and now coal have increased about 400 percent. Higher fossil-fuel prices are adding to our economic pain and soon will be reflected in electricity bills, since we make 70 percent of our electricity by burning fossil fuels. Electricity rate caps in Pennsylvania that capped prices at 1996 levels have ended in six electricity-service territories and will end throughout the state by January 2011.
Gov. Rendell has been sounding the alarm since February 2007 on energy prices, urging swift passage of a package of energy bills that would create great green jobs and give consumers practical tools to cut their electricity bills. The governor even forced a brief shutdown of state government in July to try to win approval of this package. At the time, he was much criticized for linking the energy bills to passage of the state budget by Republican leaders and others.
Now, 14 months after Rendell called for new energy policies, two critical energy bills have passed the state House and await action in the Senate. Their fate is being driven by politics and will affect state politics as well as consumers, our economy and our environment.
House Bill 2200, the energy-savings bill, would create major electricity conservation programs in every part of the state, giving families and businesses the tools and information they need to use energy smarter and cheaper.
In addition to the current single-pricing plan, which charges consumers the same price for electricity whenever it is used, the bill would require every utility to offer consumers a choice of two more pricing plans.
These would allow consumers to save money by using electricity when it is cheaper. H.B. 2200 would cut overall electricity use in Pennsylvania by 2.5 percent and the peak electricity demand, when electricity is most expensive, by 4 percent.
The other vital bill is Special Session House Bill 1, which would fund clean energy. Over four to six years, the law would require investing $850 million in clean-energy projects such as energy-efficient buildings and a large solar program for homeowners and businesses. It would bring thousands of green jobs to Pennsylvania and produce more clean electricity. This legislation builds on a Senate bill that passed in December.
That bill calls for a $650 million investment over 10 years, meaning too little would be spent in the next four years, when it is most needed.
Just as the energy world is experiencing enormous change, this year is already an extraordinary one in politics. Nationally, the turnout in the Democratic primaries has been substantial, the triumph of John McCain over more conservative GOP rivals was surprising, and Pennsylvania's voter-registration numbers have profoundly changed in ways that are just beginning to be understood.
Put simply, for the first time since at least 1980 and perhaps ever, Pennsylvania has one million more Democratic registered voters than it does Republican voters. Traditionally, Republican Montgomery, Centre and Bucks Counties now have more voters registered as Democrats.
Dauphin and many other counties saw substantial increases in Democratic registrations.
Voters are shifting their allegiances. They are looking for state and national representatives who will solve problems, not engage in bitter partisan games.
Energy is one of those real problems that need action right now. More than a year has been wasted in Harrisburg, and consumers are paying the price. Yet my organization, PennFuture, increasingly hears from sources in the Senate that there will be no action on energy bills unless they are part of a budget deal.
Smart leaders of both parties would do well to pass House Bill 2200 and Special Session House Bill 1 in May and not make them part of state budget dealing again. Passing these bills next month would demonstrate that Republicans and Democrats have gotten the message and can work together to solve real problems.